Food deserts are a growing problem in West Virginia and across the country. The USDA defines a food desert as a part of the country where people don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. Parts of more than 40 counties in West Virginia endure some sort of limited food access and the number is growing as more and more grocery stores close their doors. But when the grocery store in one Greenbrier County town closed, the community worked to find local resources with hopes of becoming self-sufficient.
After the IGA in Alderson in Greenbrier County closed last November, all the community had was basically a Dollar General store, some gas stations, and a tiny co-op in the corner of a local gift shop that sold things like beans, seeds and nuts. That co-op was part of the Alderson Community Food Hub. It’s a nonprofit that runs a community garden and a farmer’s market. Organizers had been thinking of expanding the co-op, but they didn’t expect that to happen for a while.
A Sense of Urgency
Anna Osborne has been involved with the Hub for about four years now.
"When the grocery store closed it started feeling more like an imperative," Osborne said.
The Wolf Creek Gallery Gift Shop owner agreed to move her gallery to make room for the new, expanded co-op. The Hub named the new store the Green Grocer. They bought refrigerators and wire shelving and stocked the shelves with a $25,000 grant from the One Foundation last year.
Now, you’ll find folks sitting at one of the tables by the windows eating lunch from the café while a steady flow of traffic strolls by shelves of oranges, bananas and apples. Osborne says the project is meant to provide healthy food to consumers and to provide a market for local farmers.
"Nothing against the grocery store but most of the produce that was carried there was from out of state or not local and our mission has always been to support the local economy," Osborne said.
Re-Investing in Locals
Store manager Ann Knotts says the customers are creating more demand on the local farmers.
"They’re a busy bunch of farmers," Knotts said.
Knotts says the project is doing well financially. It got a second, $30,000 grant from the One Foundation this year. But its largest chunk of cash came from donors to an Indiegogo campaign. Knotts says folks from across the world sent a total of $31,000 to help the cause.
The co-op keeps its costs down by having volunteers on staff. Helping to run the register and the store today is volunteer Mari Moody. She moved to Monroe County in the 70’s as part of the back to the land movement.
"I feel like I’ve been very very fortunate in my life," Moody said, "and it’s important to give back. I’m semiretired I have the time. I think this is especially special because of the local produce and meats that we buy."
Volunteers also help with other odd jobs like cleaning. It helps to keep prices low for this small non-profit co-op.
Getting to Know Alderson
The space in the Green Grocer and cafe is limited. The store just started offering fresh meats in June. Knotts says the store won't please everyone but is still getting to know the community's needs. Folks can also leave suggestions or feedback in the suggestion box. But so far, Knotts says, business is good.
"We see an increase all the time," Knotts said. "We’re trying to get a lot more visibility we have a lot of people say we don’t know you’re here because we don’t have enough signage out front, so we’re working on that."
"Word of mouth has been tremendous too as you can see it’s pretty steady and sometimes we’re swamped and that’s a good thing too."
Organizers of the project hope it can serve as an example to other communities that are losing grocery stores sometimes because the population is falling, and sometimes because of competition from chain stores that don’t stock much fresh food.
"There certainly is a need for greater access to fresh food and communities like Alderson all over the country but certainly here," President of the Board of Directors of the Alderson Community Food Hub Kevin Johnson said.
Johnson says folks in the community have been supportive of the project because losing the grocery store was such a big loss to the area.
"Food is such a fundamental part of what people’s daily lives that it’s almost like a service," Johnson said.
Organizers are hoping the Green Grocer project will continue to grow and reach more members of the community. Currently the group distributes food to the senior center to help out people who don’t drive. They’ve just gotten donations to get a system to keep food cold while it’s on the road.